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Free college tuition: An idea whose time has come

Melvin B. Miller

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders pledged to provide free tuition at public colleges and universities. This was attacked by conservatives as unrealistically expensive. However, public colleges in California and City College of New York once were tuition free. Earlier this month, New York officials announced a deal that will make tuition free at both SUNY and CUNY for families with annual incomes up to $125,000. Now Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has proposed free tuition at community colleges for Boston public school graduates.

The efficacy of free tuition as a boost to academic achievement has been established. It was not uncommon for affluent benefactors to pay the college expenses of deserving students, but Eugene Lang, a successful New York businessman, took that form of philanthropy to a new level. At an inspirational talk in 1981 at his old grammar school, P.S. 121 on East 103rd Street, a low income neighborhood, Lang promised to pay the college expenses of every student who was admitted to a four-year college. About half of the students were able to accept Lang’s offer and attend college. That is an extremely high rate of college attendance.

The requirements for Walsh’s plan are simple. The applicant must be admitted to a community college and qualify for a Pell Grant. The City of Boston will pay any expense for tuition and fees that are not covered by the amount of the Pell Grant. The only problem now is to make sure that this opportunity is properly communicated to the people.